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Kyle Busch gives sports cars a spin: ‘You can drive the snot out of them’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kyle Busch climbed from his new ride Friday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway with a wide smile and a few shrugs at his AIM Vasser Sullivan Racing teammates.

How was the prep work going for his Rolex 24 at Daytona debut?

“I was able to run some pretty decent times,” Busch said at a news conference between practice sessions during the opening day of the Roar Before the Rolex test. “That’s what the guys said anyway. I don’t know.”

Rarely does Busch, quite possibly the most demanding and exacting driver in NASCAR’s premier series, find himself at a loss for explaining all of the nuances that make a race car handle at optimum speed.

Which made Friday’s indoctrination at Daytona a sometimes disorienting mix of confusion alleviated by maximum camaraderie for the two-time Cup champion, who constantly was surrounded by helpful faces.

“Everyone has done a great job of welcoming me in and making me feel part of the team, getting me up to speed, getting me accustomed and used to what this form of racing is and what it entails,” said Busch, who is only six weeks removed from his second title. “But certainly a lot to improve on still. I’ve got my NASCAR driving techniques just embedded in my brain. I’ve got to get rid of those a little bit more.

“Getting more accustomed to what this car can take and what the driving techniques are that are different between the two vehicles take is certainly a lot.”

The team’s two cars had 90 minutes over two practices to break in the most famous of its eight drivers for the 24-hour endurance classic, which will take place Jan 25-26.

Busch did two stints Friday over the course of about 35 minutes in the No. 14 Lexus during the opening session. After Jack Hawksworth shook down the car for about 20 minutes, Busch climbed in at 11:25 a.m. and was within 3 seconds of his teammate during a 10-lap stint.

After an 8-minute pit stop for adjustments, Busch shaved off another second over a 14-minute run in the car in which he posted lap times the team felt was respectable.

“He’s right where he should be,” said Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson, one of several executives in the AIM Vasser Sullivan pit to observe Busch at the test. “So much of endurance racing is about confidence and being comfortable.”

Traffic and technology also will be the two major hurdles for Busch getting acclimated to sports cars. AIM Vasser Sullivan races in the GTD division, which is about 10 seconds slower around the 3.56-mile road course than the premier DPi prototype class.

That means Busch (who had one other IMSA start at Daytona nearly 12 years ago in a prototype) will be getting lapped much more often than which he is accustomed in Cup. In a role reversal of sorts, NASCAR veteran Cody Ware will be competing against Busch in the faster LMP2 division for the Rolex 24.

Especially when racing at night, Busch will rely on spotter Tony Hirschman to keep him abreast of the divergent speeds (which he also can distinguish through the varying colors of the cars’ lights).

He will be navigating the field while also adapting to cars that stop on a dime because of sophisticated antilock braking systems that are much different than his No. 18 Toyota in Cup.

“The braking is certainly the biggest adjustment,” Busch said. “I’m used to our big heavy stock cars, where you have to start the slowdown process way early, and the braking zone is forever. By the time you turn in, you have to be off the brakes because otherwise the inside wheels lock up, and you’ll skid the tires. So you also have to take care of our brakes on the Cup cars because they’re so heavy and steel and you can really overheat them.

“Completely different techniques that you have to work with on these cars. You can drive the snot out of them. You can throw it off into the corner as far as you feel you can get in there. And stomp the pedal as hard as your leg will allow you to do it.”

Busch spent some of Friday finding those limits, once driving 50 feet deeper into a chicane than teammate Jack Hawksworth. “That was too far,” Busch chuckled. “Noted.”

He had many places to look for advice. Townsend Bell, the NBC Sports analyst who also drives for the team, offered encouragement and pointers for several minutes Friday as the first to greet Busch after his first stint.

Hawksworth, a veteran of sports cars and IndyCar who scored two class wins for AIM Vasser Sullivan last year, flew to North Carolina recently to tutor Busch through a five-hour session in the driving simulator at TRD’s Salisbury facility.

“That was very useful and a great learning tool,” he said. “Definitely learned a lot. Came out of that with a good baseline for being able to come here and have a better understanding of what to expect.

“Without that, I’d be completely lost. It was good to do that. Jack’s been my biggest help and supporter. Townsend as well, too. I’ve talked to him a few times on the phone. Having Jack hands on with us at the test and being my teammate here has been big.”

But yet Busch also sheepishly confessed to at least one instance in which “I’m already trying to set up the car.

“It’s got understeer here, oversteer there or whatever. I suggested us going softer (on the setup), and they’re like, ‘We’re as soft as we can get,’ and I said “Well, that ain’t soft enough!’

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that we’re as soft as we can go. You always think of different ways of being able to engineer something. Obviously, there’s a rulebook as well, too, and I have no familiarity with any of that. So I could be totally off base to what my team already knows and I don’t.”

The Rolex 24 has been unfamiliar territory for many NASCAR interlopers before Busch. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Larson and Busch’s older brother, Kurt, are among many who have crossed over with some success.

Buch hopes to match that as the latest interloper.

“It would mean a lot” to win, he said. “Of course I want to have fun, but more importantly, I want to go out there and win for Lexus and AIM Vasser Sullivan and be able to put on a good show for the fans that show up but also the NASCAR community as well.

“Definitely a lot of guys have shown their taste of the Rolex 24, and this is my chance to be able to do that, so just hope we can keep it all on the racetrack for the whole race and have a shot at the end.”

Can Adam Stevens, Kyle Busch ‘get mojo back’ at Bristol?

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Kyle Busch is known for speaking his mind. He says what he has to say whether things are good, bad, successful or frustrating.

That kind of attitude has rubbed off somewhat on his crew chief, Adam Stevens.

After Busch finished a disappointing 29th in Thursday’s fourth Cup race in 12 days, dropping Busch from 8th to 12th in the standings, Stevens was asked in a Friday teleconference where he would assess the progress of the No. 18 team since returning from the COVID-19 hiatus.

Like his driver, Stevens didn’t beat around the bush – no pun intended.

“Overall, it’s been a disappointing start, I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Stevens said. “You have stretches like that and I think we need to get our program a little better and then internally as a team we have to do better.”

In the four post-hiatus races, Busch finished 26th at Darlington, accidentally knocked Chase Elliott into the wall to finish second in the return trip to the Lady In Black, was fourth in the Coca-Cola 600, and then things just fell apart in Thursday’s race, his 29th-place finish being the second-worst finish this season (worst was 34th in the Daytona 500).

“In general, I would say we’re not as competitive as we’d want to be,” Stevens said. “We haven’t executed like we’ve wanted to.

“We’ve managed to get a couple good finishes in there, managed to get a couple poor finishes – the poor finishes were probably more poor than what they needed to be because of mistakes or circumstances we fell into during the race.”

A potential part of the problem with the No. 18 team – it’s a likely problem for most teams that have struggled since the return to racing – has been fatigue.

By the time Sunday’s race at Bristol is over, that will make five Cup races in 15 days. Plus, wih limitations on personnel numbers both at-track and at the JGR shop due to the pandemic, fatigue is apparent.

But after Sunday’s race, NASCAR Cup teams get a luxury of sorts: no midweek races this coming week and a chance for everyone to collectively catch their breath and rest up for nearly a week until the next race on June 7 at Atlanta.

“There’s quite a few of my crew guys who have been worn out here and spread pretty thin,” Stevens said. “They could really use a day or two off for sure, and they’re going to get that early in the week.

“We have a race in Atlanta with no practice, so the prep is down, but no midweek race … will make it a lot more palatable next week. Next week will probably be a week to get caught back up and assess where we’re at and maybe do a little bit more leg work on some of the future races so we can be a little bit more ahead. For certain there’s a large group of guys who need a day off.”

Sunday’s 500-lap race at Bristol offers a chance at redemption — if not a kind of home track advantage — for Busch and Stevens. In 29 Cup starts there, Busch has eight wins — including three in his last five starts there — plus 12 top-5 and 17 top-10 finishes.

If there ever was a place to right the listing No. 18 ship, the world’s fastest half-mile may just be the place.

“What makes Kyle (Busch) good at Bristol doesn’t change,” Stevens said. “He’s just so good at adapting what he’s doing behind the wheel to suit how the track is changing. Hopefully he’ll get to showcase more of that this weekend.

“It’s the track and the nuances of the track and how that changes and the fact that it changes is what makes KB shine there. He can make time on the bottom, in the PJ1, he can make time around the top when that’s the place to be and he’s not scared to move around and really is exceptional at getting through the lapped traffic as well.

“If you had to circle a place to get your mojo back, this would probably be it.”

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Forget practice, qualifying, ‘I just like to race’

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In the new normal of NASCAR, there are a lot of things drivers are getting used to.

From health screens when they get to the track to carrying their own helmets and other chores that previously were done by assistants, drivers are adapting.

One thing that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. likes is how, with the exception of one qualifying session for the Coca-Cola 600, that the first four Cup races back since the COVID-19 hiatus have not had practice or qualifying.

Stenhouse, to paraphrase late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, wants to “just race, baby, just race.”

Even though NASCAR’s race-only policy is predicated upon keeping things simple and staying safe in the pandemic, Stenhouse definitely has embraced the mindset of climbing in the car, firing the motor up and slamming on the gas pedal. No warm-ups, no testing different setups, no nothing. He just wants to chase the checkered flag.

“I just like to race, I like to be in the race car,” Stenhouse said in a media teleconference Friday. “Practice and qualifying doesn’t do it for me as much as getting out and competing in the race, as (opposed to being) in the car on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“Really there’s nothing like going out and racing. I enjoy racing as much as possible.”

Stenhouse, who finished fourth in Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, has also enjoyed NASCAR holding two of its first four Cup races back since the coronavirus hiatus in mid-week and prime time.

While that type of schedule makes it difficult and even grueling for crew chiefs and the rest of the team, count Stenhouse as hoping NASCAR moves forward with more mid-week races next season and beyond once coronavirus and the limitations it has placed upon the sport are gone.

“I like the Sunday-Wednesday schedules; I wish we could kind of keep doing that,” he said. “I’ve never been a fan of shortening the season because I just like to race.

“I’m going to try and sprinkle some more dirt races in when I can, if NASCAR lets me (he laughs). For me, I enjoy the racing aspect of it. I love being in the race car as much as possible. Like probably the other crew chiefs said, the guys at the shop definitely have a lot more work as far as getting cars ready week in and week out.

“So, that’s always been probably the biggest question mark of running these mid-week races to catch up our schedule is the toll that it’s taking on the crew guys. But it’s all been well received, they enjoy it and they love us back racing.”

In his first season with JTG-Daugherty Racing, Stenhouse has admittedly struggled. In the first eight races, the driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet has just two top-five finishes: Thursday night and third at Las Vegas.

Every other finish has been 20th or lower.

But Stenhouse sees light at the end of the tunnel. Ever since NASCAR returned from the pandemic hiatus, Stenhouse has seen improvement within his team that may not necessarily be reflected in the final result, but he definitely likes what he’s seeing from his team and the performance of his race car.

“Looking at the equipment that they have here, the people, the parts and pieces, the Hendrick power, the new Chevy Camaro body – I feel like those are all really good things to put together,” Stenhouse said. “Bringing my crew chief Brian Pattie over, bringing Mike Kelley over, with a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience to work in, they jumped right in. I felt like they’ve been working with these guys for a long time and it’s only been a short amount of time.

“So, I feel like we are definitely capable of running in the top 10. I feel like last night was definitely a night that we hit it right. We had a really good car and I hope we can continue to run top five and contend for wins.

“But I definitely feel like we can run top 10 with everything that we have right here. We have to do that – we have to limit my mistakes, limit the issues that we’ve had and just have good, smooth, solid nights, and I think we can run top-ten.

“I told the boys that we needed a good run going into Bristol, my favorite race track, knowing that I really like the way these cars drive. And if it drives as good at Bristol as it has at these other race tracks, I feel like we’re going to have a shot at a win. I wanted a good solid top-15 run, no issues, no mistakes and it turned out to be way better than that. So, we’re looking forward to hopefully carrying that momentum into Sunday.”

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Starting lineup for Sunday afternoon’s Cup race at Bristol

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Brad Keselowski and Aric Almirola will lead the field to the green flag in Sunday’s Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Keselowski will start first and Almirola will start second.

The top five is completed by Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr., putting all three of Team Penske’s cars in the top five.

The field was determined through a random draw of the following groups:

  • Positions 1-12: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 13-24: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 25-36: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 37-40: Open teams in order of owners points

Click here for the starting lineup.

NASCAR Cup Series at Bristol

Race Time: 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Track: Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tennessee (half-mile oval)

Length: 500 laps, 266.5 miles

Stages: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Xfinity race: June 1 at Bristol (300 laps, 159.9 miles), 7 p.m. ET on FS1

Next Truck Series race: June 6 at Atlanta (130 laps, 200.02 miles), 1 p.m. ET on FS1

Chase Elliott ‘Sent it, for Judd’ in Charlotte Cup Series win

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A rollercoaster week for Chase Elliott ended Thursday night with him in Victory Lane for the second time in three days and for the first time this year in the Cup Series.

But Elliott’s win at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the seventh Cup victory of his career, had additional weight for the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Not long after the race, Elliott posted a picture on Instagram of him celebrating on the frontstretch. At the bottom of the picture was a drawing of a character saying “send it.”

A sticker of that figure, which is a walrus, is located on the front bumper of Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet.

“Sent it, for Judd,” Elliott wrote in the Instagram post. “This ones for you brother, miss you my friend. That sticker will forever stay on the front of that 9 car, I promise y’all that.”

On Friday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. asked Elliott on NASCAR America at Home the meaning behind the sticker.

“Judd (Plott) was my best friend since I was a kid, he and I grew up together,” Elliott said. “His mom sang at my parent’s wedding and just my best friend since I can remember. Lost him last fall. That sticker is kind of remembrance of him. He had a tattoo on his leg of that little walrus and that was kind of his little logo.

“So I had a friend make up some stickers last fall after (Judd passed), and I just thought it’d be really cool to carry that moving forward. He was my best friend as long as I can remember and just always supportive and just felt like it’d be special to carry that for the rest of my career and always remember him and he was one of a kind and he was a genuinely good dude.”

The walrus decal and its placement on Elliott’s bumper is similar to one that can be found on the bumper of Jimmie Johnson’s car. It’s dedicated to his friend Blaise Alexander, an ARCA driver who was killed in a crash at Charlotte in 2001, and the 10 people who were killed in a Hendrick Motorsports plane crash in 2004.

The walrus decal isn’t the first time Elliott’s honored his late friend. Last November, he had a tribute to Judd on his nameplate above the driver-side window.

Following Thursday’s race, the Cup Series next competes Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway. Like the previous four races, it will be a one-day show. Elliott shared his thoughts on how a limited at-track schedule and condensed crew rosters are bringing the No. 9 team together.

“It’s brought an excitement back to it that I haven’t had in a little while, from the standpoint of I feel like I’m short-track racing again,” Elliott said. “I feel like it’s brought our team closer together because different guys on our team are having to do more jobs. Like (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson is) having to come off the box and catch tires during the pitstop. And that’s brought him closer to our pit crew. I’m having a couple more items to do and keep up with than what I had before and I think all that is bringing us closer together. And for me, it’s just been a lot of fun kind of condensing the group and doing more racing and less sitting around.”

The one-day show at Bristol has an added element to it. Without any prior track activity before Sunday’s green flag, the traction compound added to the lower lanes in the turns will be more difficult for drivers to navigate.

Elliott thinks it’s been “overlooked a little bit.”

“(The traction compound) does not like to be run on until it gets run in and those are two things that don’t go good together, right?” Elliott said. “Because it doesn’t have grip and nobody wants to run on it. But we all want it at the same time because we want another option. What I’ve noticed is it seems like it takes the leaders catching lap cars and forcing cars into a position that they don’t want to be in to start to run that stuff in. Until it gets run in, it’s really hard. It’s really slick. And I think that’s probably the biggest thing is just, you know, marrying up all those things, right? Do we have the splitter height, right? How slick is that stuff going to be? How long is it going to take it to come in. And when it does come in how long until it wears out and the top becomes the advantage because it typically does by the end of a race.

“But we typically have a full weekend to practice and qualifying and a Xfinity race. And a lot of times we don’t see that top line come dominant until late in the Cup race on Sunday. So I’m really curious to see how all those things play out.”